Every year, Marilyn Horne presides over a series at Carnegie Hall called “The Song Continues.” It consists of recitals and master classes, and this year there was a gala concert, celebrating Horne’s eightieth birthday. There were three master classes, the final one of which was conducted by another great, retired mezzo-soprano, Christa Ludwig (who is six years older than Horne). The opera-loving and song-loving public filled Zankel Hall to see her. Introducing the evening, Horne borrowed a line from Fats Waller: “The joint is jumpin’. ” She called Ludwig “one of the greatest singers of the twentieth century.” Trying to do her colleague justice, she finally said, “Words fail me.”
For the next three hours, Ludwig put on an amazing display of teaching. She started by having the four students sing one song each, in a mini-recital. All of these songs were lieder—German art songs. When Ludwig took the stage, she said, “I speak very good German, and I could not understand one word.” (Ludwig is German, I should probably record.) She was always blunt, honest, but never mean. Frequently, she admonished the students not to be boring. “A song is an opera in one minute,” she said. “You’re not going to church to pray.” A baritone and his pianist were performing “Die beiden Grenadiere,” by Schumann. The look of exasperation on Ludwig’s face was priceless. Interrupting them, she said, “Kinder, I cannot listen to this. It’s too slow.”
Developing a camaraderie with the students—all of them—she linked arms with them as they sang. She tried to help them along, singing with them. She can still talk-sing her way through a song impressively. Very often, she said, “Nein!” Far less often, she said, “Sehr gut,” a high compliment. And she was funny, very funny. She is one of the funniest women I have ever seen on a stage. One singer repeatedly broke up phrases, causing Ludwig to exclaim to the audience, “She’s always breathing!” With increasing regularity, she would imitate a poor singer, hilariously—and then laugh. Everyone, including the singer, laughed along with her.
She said that she herself found it difficult to sing in a language other than her native tongue—which leads me to make a point I have made before: Too much of a master class is taken up with language. Maybe the students should sing in their native tongue, only. Last year, Jessye Norman taught a class in this Horne series, and she spent half her time trying to get students to say “ich,” “f ür.” Norman has so much to impart—she was reduced to the role of elementary-German coach. Ludwig played the same role, to a degree. If it were up to me, the teacher would say, “Go and learn German [or whatever the language is]. I’m not going to say any more about it today. But if you’re going to sing German songs, you must know how to sing German”—and then get on with the class, dealing with the many other aspects of singing.
In any case, Ludwig put on a splendid show. She had not been to America in many years—and it was a privilege to see her, and learn from her. People who were born after she retired were experiencing her for the first time, in the flesh. (They had surely heard recordings.) As I was leaving, one young woman—probably a voice student—squealed to another, “She’s my favorite person! Oh my God, I love her so much.” People have felt this way since about 1950.
The New York Philharmonic was guest-conducted by Andrey Boreyko, a Russian who has posts in Brussels, Düsseldorf, the Basque country, and, soon, Naples, Florida. The program offered two fairy tales, or fantasies, and a Mozart concerto. The first of the tales was Stravinsky’s Chant du rossignol; the second was Zemlinsky’s Seejungfrau. Boreyko conducted with intelligence and musicality, painting wonderful pictures. The Zemlinsky was Romantic—very—but never gooey or cloying. Boreyko was charismatic, but not at all showy: He was simply good. The Philharmonic was very good, playing both of these works with utmost virtuosity. Chant du rossignol has a prominent flute part, as you might expect from a nightingale’s song. Sandra Church handled it nicely.
Speaking of Philharmonic woodwinds, the Mozart concerto was a bassoon concerto—the bassoon concerto—and its soloist was Judith LeClair, the orchestra’s principal. She took the stage in an elegant purple dress, a striking departure from the usual black concert duds. As she played, she exuded confidence and expertise. Her low notes were exceptionally beautiful. Not often do orchestra-goers see a bassoon up front and up close. To play that instrument is a very physical activity—even in an elegant purple dress.
In her “Song Continues” series, Marilyn Horne gave a master class of her own. Getting a little teary, she said, “I want you to have a great life in music,” as she herself has. “Go to concerts, all the time. Go to hear orchestras. Even go to hear string quartets.” At this, she smiled broadly and twinklingly. I think this is the funniest comment I have ever heard about chamber music, which is sometimes an unloved or underappreciated corner of music. A few days after this master class, the Takács Quartet arrived in Zankel Hall for the Bartók string quartets—all six of them, over two concerts. I attended the first concert.
The Takács Quartet is Hungarian, which may indicate that these four have a special kinship with Bartók. I myself am not a great believer in music in the blood—besides which, half the quartet is now non-Hungarian. (The excellent first violinist, for example, is English. He is Edward Dusinberre.) It is true, however, that the Takács players have lived with Bartók for a long time, and have made him a priority. The first of their concerts brought the String Quartets Nos. 1, 3, and 5. Bartók was in his late twenties when he wrote the first one. He was dripping with talent (and craftsmanship). There is deep caring in this work—deep feeling—and the Takács played it accordingly. Ensembles, or individuals, can go on autopilot. This string quartet did not. They were alive to every note, phrase, and feeling. Their sound was not always first-rate, and they were playing in a hall that is very “exposed.” But that was of small import.
About the String Quartet No. 3, I would like to make a single remark: The Takács played it with what you might call “controlled passion.” They were not cool—they were something else. Some people, I believe, think Bartók is too brainy for emotion. This is untrue. His music is loaded with emotion. I think of something that Horowitz once said: He wanted to play Mozart like Chopin and Chopin like Mozart. Maybe, on occasion, Bartók should be played like Brahms, and Brahms “like Bartók.” But now we are getting into simplicities, and oversimplicities . . .
Marc-André Hamelin is one of those pianists who “roll their own”—who write their own music. Usually, you hear his music at the end of one of his recitals. He will play some novelty or curiosity for an encore. At his recent Zankel Hall recital, however, he began with his own music: a Barcarolle, written in 2012. There are famous precedents for barcarolles, of course: A pianist might think first of Chopin’s; others might think first of the barcarolle from Offenbach’s opera, The Tales of Hoffmann. Hamelin is a gratifying throwback of a musician—it’s typical of him to think to write a barcarolle.
His begins like La campanella, I thought—the Liszt piece. Then it is Impressionistic, like some combination of Debussy and Chopin. Soft and delicate, it’s a nice soup. I thought, “It is Berceuse-like, too”—it is as much like the Chopin Berceuse as it is like the Chopin Barcarolle. A chromatic fantasy runs through the right hand. The piece is in three sections, with pauses in between. The second section is soft like the first, but less busy. The entire piece is soft, delicate. All through, you could hear the “Zankel subway” as it rumbled by. In the third section—unless my memory is cracked—Hamelin invokes Offenbach’s barcarolle. He toys with it, skews it, Hamelinizes it.
He continued his program with a sonata by Medtner—which was no surprise. Hamelin is the kind of guy who will play the Symphony for Solo Piano by Charles-Valentin Alkan. He also has a great love of Mozart. He avails himself of all of music, not just the approved branches. The Medtner sonata he played was written in about 1910 and is dedicated to Rachmaninoff. It is in E minor and has a nickname: “Night Wind.” You can imagine how fast and difficult it is. But Hamelin plays with “unseemly ease,” to use the cliché. He is always poised, balanced, even, relaxed. He can seem a little sleepy, as Radu Lupu can. There is seldom any struggle in his playing. Other pianists put on a kind of physical show; Hamelin is borderline impassive.
For a long time, he has been thought of as an “interesting pianist.” Is it now time to call him a great one? Maybe so. But let me criticize for a second: The sounds he makes are sometimes less than distinctive. There could be more dynamic variety in his playing—more vividness, more bite, more color. He has a tendency to the moderate and the modulated. He is Joe Even. But he is also Joe Fantastic. By the way, he played a novelty as an encore: his Minute Waltz in Seconds.
In our program notes for the evening, we read, “Medtner, like Rachmaninoff, was unsympathetic to the Bolshevik regime and left Russia in 1921.” I don’t want to make too much of this, and the analogy is inexact, but try to imagine this sentence, please: “Schoenberg was unsympathetic to the Nazi regime and left Germany in 1933.”
The Philadelphia Orchestra came to Carnegie Hall, under Yannick Nézet-Séguin. He is the orchestra’s music director, and one of the most ballyhooed musicians now working. His bio, printed in the program, tells us that he “triumphantly opened his inaugural season . . . in the fall of 2012. His highly collaborative style, deeply rooted musical curiosity, and boundless enthusiasm, paired with a fresh approach to orchestral programming, have been heralded by critics and audiences alike.” Maybe my memory is misty—cracked—but it seems to me that bios used to be informational, basically. When Nézet-Séguin took the stage at Carnegie, someone went, “Whoo!” When he took it again after intermission, someone—the same person, or another whooer?—again went, “Whoo!” Maybe this is good for music.
First on the program was “The Moldau,” Smetana’s hit from Má vlast, or My Country. It began with alarming badness: It was dry and awkward, without its fluvial horizontality. But the ship soon righted itself, so to speak. Nézet-Séguin was unusual in his phrasing and dynamics. He was occasionally a little self-conscious, flirting with the precious: “See how fine this is, and how fine I am?” But, in the end, this was a stirring and beautiful rendering of “The Moldau” (despite some oddly errant intonation in the strings just before the closing notes).
Then, the aforementioned Radu Lupu came out, for Bartók’s Piano Concerto No. 3. This piece is sometimes known as Bartók’s “Classical concerto” or “Mozart concerto.” In the first movement, Lupu was not his best self. He was stumbling and cautious, depriving the music of some of its flair. But Nézet-Séguin and the orchestra were marvelous. Seldom will you hear this piece so orchestral—I had the sense of an orchestra piece with piano obbligato. Never have I been more aware of this work’s kinship with the Concerto for Orchestra (written two years before). The middle movement, Adagio religioso, began with a lovely equilibrium. When Lupu came in, however, he committed some terrible thumping accentuation. The finale had some of its fire and playfulness, but not enough. There was an underlying intelligence, as there always is from Lupu. He was modest, restrained, respectful, as he usually is. He had his integrity. But let not these things be a cover for “boring.” Lupu is too big a pianist to condescend to. He had a dud of an outing.
After intermission, Nézet-Séguin conducted a seldom-played symphony of Dvorak: No. 6. It has one famous movement, the Scherzo, a furiant—a fast and furious Bohemian dance. This is a terribly exciting stretch of music. In this performance, it was the worst of the four movements—not nearly Slavic or earthy enough (and semi-botched in execution). But the performance overall was highly commendable: smooth, reasonable, and committed. In the slow movement, there was some beautiful horn playing. The Philadelphia Orchestra has forever been known for its strings, but if this keeps up, it may have to be known for its horns.
Lang Lang is up and down, and sideways. The best I have ever heard him play, I think, was in a Mozart concerto—the Concerto No. 17 in G, K. 453. This was at the Salzburg Festival in 2006. The orchestra was the Vienna Philharmonic, and the conductor was Pierre Boulez. After the concerto was over, the men of the orchestra put down their instruments and clapped for the soloist. This is rare, in my observation. To begin his latest Carnegie Hall recital, the young man played three Mozart sonatas in a row. Would he have enough discipline, without Boulez to rein him in?
He took the stage in his usual way: strutting, preening, giving his Callas-like salutes. Lang Lang can be difficult to look at: He likes to conduct himself, sometimes with a “Furtwängler flutter.” But I always say, “No fair lookin’ ”—music is an aural experience, basically. Years ago, I found I had to look away from Richard Goode, who was gyrating at the keyboard. In any event, how did Lang Lang do in his Mozart? He was liberal, free, but not un-Mozartean and not unmusical. You and I could quarrel with Lang Lang in any number of ways, but the essential question is, “Was it musical?” The slow movements, he sang beautifully—and this is hard to do on the piano. They are little arias, cavatinas. Also, the pianist took great pleasure in the rhythms of Mozart’s minuets.
Schnabel is credited with saying, “Mozart is too easy for children and too hard for adults.” Lang Lang has a childlikeness and innocence about him. Mozart had the same qualities. I believe Mozart would appreciate Lang Lang.
On the second half of the recital were the four Chopin Ballades. They are not meant to be a set, but completeness has been the fashion for many years now, and I look forward to its passing. In the Ballades, Lang Lang was up and down—mostly up. The coda to the G-minor Ballade was largely a botch—but that is part of the excitement of live performance, as against studio recordings. The F-major Ballade was extraordinary: Lang Lang began it like an angel and ended it like the devil. He played the coda in time, which was almost unbearably exciting. This coda is too hard to play in time, for most pianists. They employ all sorts of rubato, not because they want to but because they have to. As with the Mozart, I could pick at Lang Lang in a hundred ways—but the bottom line is this: He has a wonderful musical imagination and wonderful fingers. He is almost never boring. Did the Ballades have “spiritual integrity” (to use a pretentious phrase)? No, not really, but they had most everything else, and I think Chopin would have grinned and beamed as they were being played.
I doubt there is a musician who generates as much animosity and resentment as Lang Lang does—especially among fellow musicians. This is a topic for a long piece, but let me offer a dollop: Lang Lang is unembarrassed by his talent. He revels in it, and wants others to revel in it, or at least enjoy it, too. And this rubs a lot of people the wrong way. He is sometimes a little vulgar, sure—I have walked out of his concerts (as I have explained in reviews, or non-reviews). But he is also a wonder, and I can’t help loving the kid, getting a huge kick out of him. Even if I want to strangle him, now and then.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 32 Number 7, on page 49
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